I started cataloging our art books today. Very exciting, I know. We have quite a library of books all together – between the art book collection, the dozens of philosophy books and the many volumes in between it spans more than a few centuries of knowledge and inspiration. What boggles my mind, when I look at the couple hundred books of paintings and drawings, is the lifetimes they represent. Hours, days, weeks, years of the lives of men and women who dedicated themselves to the creative urge. And each book – each artist – is a facet of a jewel that allows the light of inspiration to pass through it in a particular manner creating shapes, motifs, themes and designs, entire stories, entire lifetimes.
The books on the shelves are organized into several sections. One shelf holds the rather modern day visionary artist types – Robert Venosa, Mati Klarwein, Alex Grey, Gil Bruvel, etc – then a shelf of illustrators – Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Harry Clarke, Dr. Seuss, and more – then art history – historical movements like Art Nouveau, Surrealism, etc – and then, of course, many shelves of just artists – Vincent Van Gogh, Max Ernst, Michelangelo, Salvador Dali, Frantisek Kupka, Hieronymus Bosch, Gustav Klimt, and more more more.
While I love the books and the sort of intimacy they afford, it can’t be denied that I also live in a world where the work of these artists is available at the pressing of a few keys on a keyboard. There is one Van Gogh book in which there is a painting of his in which he reproduced a classic work by Delacroix. According to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (which I had the pleasure of visiting once thanks to a many hour layover)
This Pietà – the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead Christ – is based on a lithograph by Nanteuil after a painting by Eugène Delacroix. Van Gogh painted it in 1889, during his confinement at the hospital in Saint-Rémy. It is more a variation on the original than a true copy: the painter adopted both the subject and composition, but executed it in his own color and style.
You see, the “copy” he copied was black and white. It was perhaps torn from a book. In those days, it wasn’t very easy to study another artist’s work.
Granted, at one time, even for me it wasn’t as easy as it is now. Back in those pre-internet days (ok, there was internet but it was an ox cart compared to today’s superhighway) – back then, living with friends or traveling, I painted here and there and had very little access to other artists. I barely knew anyone else was doing anything like what I did. I know that a number of my friends and contemporaries felt the same way. We just did what we did because of that inner urge to create – the same inner urge that drove the artists to create the works that grace these hundreds of pages that are lined up in the bookshelves beside me. The beauty of that solitary confinement of sorts – away from other artists in any case – is that it allowed many of us to find our own voices and get clear with what we had to say.
The clarity of the inner voice, it’s integrity and authenticity, is so important in creating a work of art. You can have all the creativity in the world but if there is no authenticity to the experience then the final piece will feel flat, uninspired. So back to the books here beside me… These artists – all of them – were on paths of discovery. Authenticity and discovery go hand in hand, I feel. When we are inauthentic, we are being something we are not. If we are being something we are not, then we are a projection of something we either wish to be or wish for others to perceive us as. Inauthentic living is like walking through life wearing a mask. That mask, we hope, sticks and stays and is unchanging. I am THIS THING OVER HERE, we might say. And there in lies the death of discovery.
Life, the universe, this thing that we are in – it’s an ever changing sea of wonder. And in that is the discovery. If we move through that sea with a gentle sense of curiosity and leave ourselves open to whatever we might find then it is likely we will discover great things. Great in the way that we appreciate how the sun arrives through the window at 4:30 in the afternoon and bathes the room in gold. Great in the way that we notice the divine radiance that is reflected in the drop of sap upon the concrete sidewalk from the pine tree overhead. It shimmers. Great in the little things, great in the big things.
This is how one lives one’s life as an artist: by living life from a place of authenticity and living it with a genuine sense of curiosity and discovery and applying that sense of curiosity and discovery to the work that we do. Take time to pause. Stop and smell the roses. Notice the curve of a brow, the crook of a tree, the blur of the mountain behind the close up of the cherry blossom. An artist leaves no stone unturned. There is beauty even in the worms.
In conclusion, I want to clarify something: I have a bunch of books by people that society has proclaimed to be artists. I’m not going to argue with them. Surely the work they’ve created is great. This is not however to say that “only painters (or sculptors, etc) are the artists”. I feel that any one who seeks beauty, who allows the natural rhythms to flow through them, who lives a life of self-discovery, who does their work with love and joy, is an artist. There is an art to living life and being happy and while it seems like it should be an easy thing to do, our human minds, while brilliant at times, have done everything they can to invent every possible little hook that might tug us away from that artful happiness.
Make greatness. Make it with love.